The Creeping Privatisation of Dublin Bus
It has recently been announced that that the company Go -Ahead has won the contract to operate 10% of outer Dublin Bus routes. This means a major transfer of undertakings from the public to the private sector and will mean another erosion of terms and conditions for bus workers in general. The company is notorious for its attacks on terms and conditions on Southern Rail in the UK, a contract it has just lost, for its attempts to do away with guards on trains. Given the militancy of public transport workers during this year's spring and the willingness of rank and file workers to defend terms and conditions and oppose privatisation how has the government had such success with their plans?
After having accepted a series of cuts to wages and infringements on working conditions since 2008 and facing a further €11 million in cuts in 2013, the workers at Dublin Bus presented an exemplary fighting spirit to defend their pay and conditions and the service they worked in. After rejecting the proposed package of cuts the drivers went on strike. Workers at Iarnrod Eireann expressed solidarity and were prepared to support the bus workers as were the white collar workers in supervisory grades who had already joined picket lines and had subsequently voted by a margin of three to one to join a walkout over the company's “high handed attitude”. The general Secretary of TSSA, promised that; "Unless there is a breakthrough this week, they will be joining the picket lines next week."
Of course there was no sincere commitment to a fight by the bureaucracy. They had stood by and allowed the introduction of the “Network Direct” system in 2010 which cut routes and saw the loss of 150 jobs but this time their position as facilitators of the deal had been undermined by the company's threat to impose the cuts without 'consultation' and the bluster was merely there as a facade to distract from their attempts to demobilise the drivers and resume their role as intermediaries.
Displaying the bureaucracy's trademark cynicism the Siptu leader Willie Noone quickly set the stage for the betrayal of the strikers by welcoming the invitation by Kevin Duffy to talks at the Labour Court while warning that the dispute will only be resolved through “negotiation and discussion”. Definitely not, in his opinion, by the workers taking any kind of action themselves but through the intervention of the union's full time negotiating team.
A series of demobilisations
The strike was immediately demobilised on the flimsy promise of a suspension of the management's plans, but only for the duration of the talks. Siptu announced that "Our members will cease strike action on confirmation from Dublin Bus that it will withdraw its currently unacceptable cost-cutting measures “while talks take place." The statement plainly revealed that they were asking for the company to back off temporarily to get them into talks. On August 6th after three days on strike the action was called off for all sides to attend the Labour Court.
The Labour Court recommendations which offered basically the same package of cuts that had been on the table were again rejected and in total the deal was rejected three times, each time by a diminishing margin as the drivers resolve was sapped by the obvious unwillingness of their leadership to stand unequivocally against the cuts.
By October the struggle was still ongoing and against a background of attacks in the press and threats to put the company into receivership or to impose the plans forcefully the drivers were still holding out.
Investigating the obvious
Completely at a loss to explain why the bus drivers would not accept the gutting of their terms and conditions ICTU, along with IBEC, commissioned an “Independent” Team to investigate the reasons for the continued rejection of the Labour Courts Recommendation”. It was hardly a mystery but what the resort to an independent team signified was that the trade union bureaucracy had faced stiff opposition from their rank and file members.
The final report was greeted with the distrust it deserved and was again dismissed by the Siptu drivers, although this time the NBRU drivers will had been sapped by the constant bureaucratic refrain that “there is no alternative” and had accepted it. The tactics of the management and the bureaucracy were working.
On October 25th Siptu's leadership produced an apologetic response to the ballot's outcome, which had clearly went against their wishes. Shortly afterwards they announced that “due to the changed and serious nature of the circumstances that are now in existence” they were going to re-ballot their members even though the earlier mandate for industrial action was still valid. They quite obviously were seeking a different outcome.
The lack of opposition coming from the official negotiators set the tone, a mood of resignation set in as the Siptu drivers were sent back to vote again, clear in the knowledge that the last result was 'wrong' and their position increasingly hopeless. The bureaucracy's footdragging and side stepping had taken its toll and this time the drivers that had held out accepted their fate, and the cuts, including the decreased subvention agreed to by the 'independent investigation'.
It was a dogged struggle by the drivers but the bureaucracy triumphed and played a key role in facilitating the imposition of government policy.
Indicating the lack of sincerity in the state's 'assurances', given to union leaders, and the real role played by the 'independent investigation' which the leadership had used to demobilise the strikes, the size of the cuts in the State subvention immediately exceeded the agreed level. There was no attempt to stick to the promised level of cuts.
The subvention figure for 2012 had been €74.8 million but the agreed reduction to €64.9million for 2013 was exceeded by almost half a million in the year of the agreement. The following year saw a further reduction of almost another half million below the agreed figure of €60. 4 million and in the following year, 2015, the figure exceeded the agreed decrease to €60.4 million by €2.7 million, falling to €57.7 million - a reduction of €17.1 million in the space of three years and a fall of €27.9 million from 2008.
The mechanics of privatisation
Having achieved “industrial peace” the body responsible for the privatisation of public transport, the National Transport Authority, plainly aware that the union leadership had the situation 'under control', announced on December 3rd that the privatisation of 10% of Dublin Bus routes was going ahead. The privatisation had been announced earlier in 2013 as part of the package of sales of State assets required to lower state indebtedness incurred by the Banking collapse. The NTA which had been founded in 2009 for the purpose of "bus market regulation and the procurement of public transport services" and would oversee and co-ordinate the transfer of transport services to private companies.
The mechanism they used to lay the groundwork for the transfer was to firstly enter into a contractual relationship with Dublin Bus and Bus Eireann and then award contracts on a competitive basis. Once the union leadership accepted this without a fight the basic mechanics of the process of privatisation was accomplished and it was just a matter of expanding the competition to all comers. As a sweetener for the formation of the NTA it was to include an advisory body which would include places for trade union officials but as of February 2017 the advisory body had still not been set up. The establishment of the process had gone so smoothly and the union leadership were so quiescent that no fig leaf was required for the bureaucracy.
Following the 'successful' demobilisation of the drivers resistance to cost cutting and the starving of the companies of funding through the decreasing level of state subvention the NTA confidently moved forward, announcing that it would “enter into a direct award contract with the two firms in 2014, and then to amend those contracts in 2016 to reduce the services by some 10%”. They were true to their word. 2014 and 15 saw continued talk of 'strong opposition' to privatisation by the NBRU and Siptu, but the wheels were in motion and no practical opposition was planned by the bureaucrats. Looming strikes, even a token 90 minute strike and 'protest walk', was referred to the LRC and action averted and in January 2015 the routes went out to tender.
Assurances and frustration
By the end of September 2016 frustration had produced more highly effective strikes but following two days of strike action the NBRU and Siptu abandoned a further eleven days of strikes after talks at the LRC. Urging the drivers to accept the resulting deal Dermot O'Leary, obviously accepting the strictures of austerity, issued a statement saying that the promised increases were “at the optimum that can be achieved at this time”.
The threat of privatisation was heaped on top of pay cuts, two cost cutting plans and eight years without a pay rise but still the NBRU and Siptu talked the drivers into letting their guard down and returning to work on the basis of weak promises. By early 2017 the drivers were facing the reality that the 2015 agreement between their leadership and Dublin Bus was not being honoured. Strike action was again planned and then immediately cancelled by the leadership on the receipt of written “assurances” from the NTA that the terms of the earlier deal would be honoured.
On the basis of these assurances the leadership convinced the drivers to drop industrial action and with the Dublin Bus drivers pacified the NTA proceeded with their plans for cuts and privatisation, this time at Bus Eireann. The union bureaucracy attempted to contain it but faced, in their own words; “uncontainable anger” from the workers not only about the cuts but also about the company's increasingly arrogant imposition of their will. The result was an impressive outbreak of wildcat action and spontaneous solidarity among Bus Eireann, Dublin Bus and Iarnrod Eireann workers. The NTA was faced with a determined strike and exemplary solidarity between Rail and Bus workers but it was once again set aside by Siptu and NBRU in favour of their fruitless negotiating strategy. The same demobilisation that had taken place in 2013 happened all over again.
On August 14th 2017, after testing the ground for signs of life in the opposition, the global transport company 'GoAhead', was announced as the winner of the contract to operate 10% of Dublin Bus routes. The timing of the announcement was significant. It was obviously held back to allow for the demobilisation of the Bus Eireann strike and the solidarity that had been building up between them and the Dublin Bus and Iarnrod Eireann workers.
Rubbing salt into the wound the company chosen, which operates in London and Singapore, has been described, before losing their Rail contract, as the “worst rail operator in Britain of 2015”, and are notorious for their targeting of pensioners use of passes and for their flagrant disregard for health and safety by attempting to remove guards from trains. The entire episode went without response from the bureaucracy who moved swiftly on to attempting to portray the looming Haddington Road II agreement in a positive light as the route towards the end of financial emergency measures and improved conditions for public sector workers by 2020.
No End in Sight!
With every victory scored by the state employer another assault looms into view and the Fine Gael government has other plans for public sector workers by 2020. It was the Maastricht agreement which established that the National debt must be less than 60% of GDP. At present Irish debt as a proportion of GDP is at 77.9%, down from a high of 125% in 2013, a peak due to the conversion of the banking debt into a government debt. This fall seems spectacular but the figure is distorted due to the through-flow of multinational capital, tax avoidance scams which produce figures which have been described as “leprechaun economics” and do not reflect local economic activity. If a further 17.9 percentage points worth of spending cuts seems unbearable to public sector workers then the announcement earlier this year by then Finance Minister Noonan of a preferred debt target of 45% of GDP for 2020 should be sobering.
The lowering of the target figure reflects the fact that Irish GDP is influenced to a high degree by the flow of corporate capital through the state, leaving the most minimal of a footprint on the local economy. Any growth attained in the 'real' economy has been at the expense of additional hours worked and wage cuts for workers while the crossflow of corporate capital has produced skewed figures which the State has no intention of allowing the bureaucracy to use in order to claim the 'recovery' as a reason to expand the fiscal space and put a brake on public spending cuts. The debt target figure of 45% of GDP is floated to avoid this.
To hit these targets the State will not rely on the mirage like figures produced by 'leprechaun economics' but will strive to hit the lower figure, more reflective of the real level of debt to GDP, by proceeding with their measures of lowering the public service wage bill through the mechanism of cuts and two tier pay, privatising bus services, attacking pensions and refusing to provide adequate public housing.
If the weaknesses of the trade union leadership is apparent to many of their members it is doubly so to their opposite numbers on the management side. The union bureaucracy's ultimate strategy is constrained by their willingness to restrict their demands to what is allowed within the 'fiscal space', in other words they seek only a little medicine to treat the wound caused by cuts they agree must happen.
Time and time again it has been shown that all the employers have to do when the workers reject their proposals at ballot is to allow the bureaucrats to get to the negotiating table, always an automatic and prompt transition, where their overarching compliance with the Troika's parameters means the outcome, give or take a few minor points, is guaranteed to be acceptable to the bosses. All that remains is for the bureaucrats to make the workers vote repeatedly until what is on offer is accepted.
The choreographed announcements on privatisation and the persistent footdragging on honouring agreements reveals a Public Sector management that knows the routine, allows their opposite numbers 'their place' in that routine but holds them in complete contempt. They are confident from their experience that the comfortably off bureaucrats on the opposite side of the table do not feel the burn of austerity, have led no real opposition to it, and have over the years allowed the creeping privatisation of public transport to progress roughly in line with the state's predictions and plans.
They are also aware that any upsurge in strike activity by the workers themselves will be 'handled responsibly' and demobilised by a leadership that operates within the 'fiscal space', accepts the rationale of austerity and privatisation and is therefore ideologically ambivalent in opposing them.
This does not mean that the general body of bureaucrats are consciously on the managements' 'side', though some clearly are. They have their own privileged interests at heart but those interests are dependent upon their contradictory role as mediators between labour and capital. It does mean however that their outlook is not socialist as they pretend, it is thoroughly bourgeois. They accept the bosses analysis of how to deal with the crisis and have accepted the national bourgeoisie's strategy for integrating with imperialist capital, relying on them for a deal to shelter them from a confrontation with imperialism.
In an appeal issued to imperialist capital for Keynesian type measures to alleviate, in their own words, “one of the most profound crises in its history” the union leadership has previously explained their acceptance that workers must pay the price for the capitalist crisis. Seeing the role of trade unionism as “key” to a transformation to a “socialist society” they argue that trade unions are “also essential to the survival of capitalism.” In their view trade unionism must first deliver a profitable capitalism so that their 'gas and water' version of socialism can be negotiated with the state.
Trotsky's description of the bureaucracy in 'Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay' describes the Irish trade union bureaucracy of today well;
“In the eyes of the bureaucracy of the trade union movement the chief task lies in “freeing” the state from the embrace of capitalism, in weakening its dependence on trusts, in pulling it over to their side. This position is in complete harmony with the social position of the labour aristocracy and the labour bureaucracy, who fight for a crumb in the share of superprofits of imperialist capitalism.”Their theory of socialist transformation holds that it is possible only if Irish capitalism can afford it, or if they can wring a crumb or two from the superprofits of imperialist capitalism. It is a view that brings them up against the buffers of reformism. They accept the fiscal parameters generated by the crisis and imposed by the Troika, within which meaningful reform is not possible, and they accept that the working class must pay to restore profitability. They are completely disarmed and their opposite numbers know it!
Wave of Resistance
After years of wage cuts, the erosion of working conditions and the relentless advance of privatisation plans for public transport a wave of resistance broke out with repeated angry strikes which led only to a demobilisation with nothing to show. In the process the bureaucracy revealed their utter determination to stick within the “narrow confines of the fiscal space” and with their deals with the State. That wave has receded and this is reflected across the working class in the brow beaten votes accepting the Haddington Road II agreement, which was attained using the same bureaucratic strategy that demobilised the strikes.
The continued advances towards a low pay economy gained through the mechanism of privatisation, two tier pay and cuts will continue which means that inevitably workers' anger will again express itself in what union officials have described as “uncontainable” upsurges.
The existing bureaucratic leadership is entirely institutionalised and will once again fight to “contain” those upsurges, continuing to sacrifice the working class to “save” capitalism today with vague promises of reforms and gas and water 'socialism' for a tomorrow which will never come.
This presents a challenge for worker activists and trade union rank and file members. Our trade unions must break with and confront the policies of global capitalism and this will only happen through a struggle to reinvigorate and democratise our unions. A break with the bureaucratic leadership is crucial and is the basis of a struggle to replace collaboration with the state with uncompromising resistance to it.
As Trotsky noted;
“The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.”Resistance to the impact of the capitalist crisis faces immediately the power of the state and behind it global capital and imperialism. Revolutionaries and anti-imperialists must make the removal of the existing reactionary trade union leadership a priority and fight for the conversion of trade unions into real instruments of working class defence and revolutionary resistance.